A lifetime of making a difference
- Published: July 16, 2009
On an ordinary street in town, there is an ordinary brick ranch with two ordinary maple trees planted in the front yard. But inside this ordinary house is a woman with an unordinary history. It’s a personal history that reflects advances in civil rights and decolonization. It’s the history of one woman with a pioneering spirit, keen leadership skills and a love of learning.
Dr. Yvonne Seon, professor, administrator and author, was recently awarded the “Gold Citation” from her alma mater, Allegheny College, for “honor reflected upon the College” for outstanding professional and volunteer activities.
To understand how Seon, who recently moved back to the village after an extended absence, came to hold the award requires a glimpse into her storied career, an adventure that mirrors many pivotal moments of the second half of the twentieth century.
Graduating from Allegheny College in 1959 with a bachelors degree, Seon (then Yvonne Reed) proceeded the following year on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to American University, earning a masters degree in American government and political science, with a minor in French.
The 60s were “the time of the big change,” Seon said, “the period when many colonized nations, including those of Africa, began to push for independence.”
The struggle for decolonization included the rise of a young, nationalist leader who advocated for an independent Congo. Patrice Lumumba gained prominence among the Congolese people, and was democratically elected as prime minister in 1960. His swearing in marked the formal transmission of power from Belgium to the Congolese, and the beginning of a time of turbulent political strife.
Lumumba came to the United States soon after becoming prime minister and Seon’s mother, a leader in the African-American community, could not attend the reception being held for him. A family friend saw to it that Seon attended in her stead.
Arriving late and missing the reception line, Seon found herself ushered over to meet Lumumba by a young journalist. But he had left, and Seon found herself explaining to his assistant who she was and her interest in meeting the prime minister. This conversation lasted the duration of the evening, ending over a spaghetti dinner with Seon’s mother.
The assistant, realizing Seon spoke fluent French and was educated in politics, took an interest in arranging a meeting between Seon and Lumumba. He suggested that Seon consider the possibility of a position in the Congo in Lumumba’s cabinet. Realizing this was a serious offer, Seon requested that both her mother and her father, who were divorced, attend the meeting with the prime minister the next day.
The meeting took place at the Blair House, the president’s guesthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, and Prime Minister Lumumba did, in fact, offer Seon a position. Lumumba explained to Seon that he was headed to Canada momentarily, but would look for Seon on the plane that left New York on Tuesday.
“Lumumba said, ‘So, that’s that,’ as he looked around at me and my family. This was a Saturday,” Seon said, chuckling. She was 22.
She arrived several months later in the Congo, and lived there for two years during a period of political upheaval and civil war.
“I felt as though I was safe,” Seon said, having a promise of protection from the Congolese government. She was able to develop friendships with people from multiple nations and she even managed to have a social life, attending church and even enjoying picnics on occasion.
Seon came to serve as the secretary to the High Commission on the Inga Dam, “an exciting project” that, in conception, is one of the largest hydro-electric power projects in the world. It was also the highest office a non-national could hold.
“The purpose of the dam was to create power, and it was strong enough to take high tension lines 1,000 miles away to Katanga Province which had been in rebellion,” Seon said. “This was a very important link” for stability in the region.
In 1963, the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Seon returned to the states. At this time, the American civil rights movement was in full force and there were riots in the streets.
“I felt like I had entered another civil war,” she said.
Seon sought work in the states comparable to that of her work as a chief administrative officer in the Congo. Her position often translated to that of the position of secretary, which meant Seon, now a 27-year-old African American woman, had to advocate for her ability to handle the position of a high level administrative officer.
“When you say you were the secretary for a government agency, they translated that as being a secretary in a government agency,” she said.
Seon came to hold one of the first positions as a foreign affairs officer in the Office of International Conferences, specializing in the delegation of the Food and Agricultural Organization and commodities, fisheries and forestry meetings.
Near the second anniversary of her employment in this position, Seon was asked to be the secretary of delegation, the chief administrative officer, for the Fourteenth General Assembly of UNESCO, which took place in Paris.
“This was 50 years ago,” she said, laughing. “I was the youngest person ever selected for that role. I was the first African American selected for that role. And I was the second woman ever to be selected for that role on a major United States delegation.”
At the time, Seon said she was so caught up in handling the administrative tasks as secretary of the delegation that the significance of her position was not readily apparent at the time.
“My youth was as much of an anomaly to the people that I worked with as was the fact that I was an African American woman,” she said.
After six weeks in Paris, Seon returned to the states, to her new marriage to Bill Chappelle and to their new home, Yellow Springs.
“My husband had friends in Yellow Springs and we were excited about job possibilities,” Seon said. The pace of life was different than the city metros and this was very appealing to both of them.
In 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, Seon began a position at Wilberforce as the coordinator of student affairs, a role she cites as potentially her most challenging experience. The student unrest was great, and her job involved many responsibilities, ranging from advocating the need for African-American studies in the curriculum to trying to improve the quality of food and the upkeep of the dormitory, Seon said.
And as a fall-out from those student issues, tension between faculty and administration also became a challenge. Student riots led to the occupation of the campus by the national guard.
“We were the very first institution in the nation to use arbitration to deal with these issues,” Seon said. “We were pioneers,” she said, “and I had the responsibility of seeing that we didn’t go to court.”
The process left Seon “burned out,” and she resigned her position after seeing the arbitration through its final report in 1971.
Meanwhile, student unrest at Wright State University led students to request the creation of a black cultural resources center, and Seon accepted the position of founding director for Wright State’s Bolinga Center.
Seon and Chappelle moved back to Washington, D.C., separating in 1974. Seon stayed in Washington to work with Congressman Diggs, the chairman of the Committee on Africa, and Chappelle returned to Yellow Springs, where he had made a long career at Antioch College.
Their three children shared time between Washington, D.C. and Yellow Springs.
“Children are a great foundation point for your life,” Seon said. “They are the anchor, if you will, that makes the rest of it worthwhile.” When Seon’s work seemed a strain to balance with the needs of her family, she figured it was time to move on to something different.
During her time on Congressman Diggs’ staff, more winds of change swept through Africa, and swept through her own life. Seon experienced what she considered a call to ministry.
In addition to her other education, which includes a Ph.D. in African-American humanities, from 1979 to 1981, Seon worked towards her divinity degree at Howard University, once again becoming a pioneer — the first African-American woman minister in the Unitarian Universalist denomination.
Seon says that while her life is marked by a pioneering spirit and a good dose of practical “bush-woman” drive, her passion is African-American studies. After multiple instructor and professorship positions, Seon became a tenured professor of African-American studies in the history department at Prince Georges Community College, the position she left to return to Yellow Springs.
The current stage of her life, in Yellow Springs among family and friends, has been filled with honorary recognitions that force her to look back and consider her life’s work, she said. Seon’s recognitions are formalized by the many awards that sit upon her mantel, including one from the African Scientific Institute, which is inscribed to Yvonne Reed Chappelle Seon: “Mama Inga.”
Seon hopes to go back to the Congo to see the Inga Dam, so that she may see how things have changed for the Congolese since the construction of the first phase.
If there is one principle Seon can cite as a driving force behind her experience and accomplishments, it is the notion that, in life, we have a certain duty to fulfill.
“Each of us is called upon to address the human condition, and some of us have more responsibility than others,” she said. As for her own role, Seon said, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”